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Conversation at local Perkins restaurant in 1974 inspired production of "The Rock & The Rabbi"

MILLIGAN COLLEGE, TN (October 25, 2001)-This Saturday evening, Seeger Chapel will be filled with the sounds of acoustic guitars, Irish and African drums, and accordions and bagpipes, as 1978 Milligan alumnus Gary Richardson brings his nationally acclaimed production of “The Rock & The Rabbi” to the local stage.

The production has played to sell-out audiences all over the nation, including the Hard Rock Live in Orlando, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va.

The Tampa, Fla.-based production was co-written and produced by Richardson. It is a drama about the friendship between the apostle Peter (the rock) and the long awaited Jesus Christ (the Rabbi). Richardson describes the musical theatre as “a contemporary treatment of the biblical story.”

“It’s a creative mix of storytelling and unplugged, acoustic music,” said Richardson, who first got the idea for the storyline when he was a freshman at Milligan. It was 1974 and Richardson was sitting next to local minister Tommy Oaks at the Perkins restaurant in Johnson City. Oaks had just made a discovery and shared it with Richardson.

“I never realized it before,” shared Oaks, who was preaching a series of vesper services at Milligan at that time. “But the miraculous catch of fish happened twice in the Bible! I always thought it was just the same story told in different places, but it’s not.”

Oaks went on to explain that Jesus performed the same miracle for Peter at the beginning of their friendship, as mentioned in Luke 5, when he said he’d make Peter a ‘fisher of men’ and then again after the resurrection, as described in John 21.

“Imagine Peter’s face when he caught those fish the second time – his whole life had come full circle! You know, if they ever do another musical of the gospel story, they should open and close with the same scene – that miraculous catch of fish,” said Oaks.

The idea stuck with Richardson through the years. At Milligan he immersed himself in theatre, acting and directing several stage productions and traveling with a Milligan camp team. He was inspired by professors Juanita Jones, Tracey Miller and Jim Shields. Richardson remembers them as “humble people who really loved their Heavenly Father.”

Richardson graduated in 1978 with a major in English and minors in speech and drama. In the early 1990s, while serving as an on-air worship leader for the Christian Network show, “Worship,” in Tampa, Fla., and as associate minister at Harborside Christian Church, Richardson began to think seriously about his conversation with Oaks all those years before.

The title for the musical dawned on him: “The Rock & The Rabbi.” The plot was already set – the story of an incredible friendship between the apostle Peter and the long awaited Messiah. Soon he and friend Danny Hamilton, a composer who was also on staff at Harborside, began to develop the musical – a combination of storytelling and acoustic music.

Rather than a large, costumed drama, their musical would be a small cast of men that would recount the close relationship of Jesus and his disciples. The production rests on the shoulders of Richardson, the narrator, as he tells Peter’s story. He is supported by the voices and musical performances of the cast, including Derrick Williams and Neal Coomer, formerly one half of the Christian pop duo East to West.

“The story is very accurately told,” says Richardson. “We’ve learned not to mess with a really excellent story.”

“The Rock & The Rabbi” debuted at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Fla., in May 1998. Well-received by the Tampa Bay community, Richardson and Hamilton formed a production company, Eyes & Ears Productions, which Richardson went full time with in 1999. Since their debut, “The Rock & The Rabbi” has performed at venues across the United States.

“The Rock & the Rabbi is a wonderfully told, age-old story that has powerfully poetic lyrics and inspiring rhythms,” said Richard Major, professor of theater at Milligan College and a 1978 classmate of Richardson. “It’s wonderful to finally have a theatrical production that possesses and professes the power and beauty of Christianity and that is aimed at a mainstream audience.” Major has been a directing consultant for the several of the musical’s performances.

“’The Rock & The Rabbi’ is a story we can all identify with – Christians and non-Christians like,” said Richardson. “This musical shows people that Jesus can take somebody like Peter, who wasn’t all that special, and use him to do great things. And in the end, he becomes special. To me, that means there’s hope for all of us. What a better way to be ‘fishers of men’ than to carry God’s truth to theatres across America.”

Milligan is especially gratified to host the production because of Richardson’s “Milligan roots.”

“The fact that Gary is an alum certainly played a part in our decision to invite him,” said Theresa Garbe, director of alumni relations. “But the musical also has an important message, one that Milligan wants to be able to share with the community.”

“The Rock & The Rabbi” will show at Milligan College this Saturday, October 27, at 7:30 p.m. in Seeger Chapel as part of the college’s Homecoming Weekend festivities. Tickets are $17.50 and $20 and can be purchased at the Milligan College Bookstore during regular business hours by calling 423-461-8733. Tickets are also available at the door. For more information about the show, call the Milligan College Alumni Office at 1-800-447-5922.

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MILLIGAN COLLEGE is a Christian liberal arts college in Northeast Tennessee whose vision is to change lives and shape culture through a commitment to servant leadership. The college offers more than 100 majors, minors, pre-professional degrees and concentrations in a variety of fields, along with graduate and adult degree completion programs.  To learn more about Milligan College, visit www.milligan.edu or call 800-262-8337.

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